How Russia uses crises in its regional environment – European Council on Foreign Relations

What a difference a year makes! In the fall of 2020, Russia’s position appeared to be deteriorating in many former Soviet states. Large-scale protests in Belarus seemed to herald the end of the Alyaksandar Lukashenka era. Maia Sandu’s loss to Igor Dodon as President of Moldova deprived Russia of its best political ally in the country. The “October Revolution” in Kyrgyzstan saw the emergence of a new generation of leaders with a nationalist tendency without any experience in the old Soviet structures. Meanwhile, in the South Caucasus, Turkey’s decisive support for Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict suggested the end of the delicate balance that Russia had carefully maintained for two decades.

However, at the start of 2022, the picture is completely different: Russia has managed to strengthen its position throughout the region. The pressure this helped generate effectively brought the United States and NATO to the negotiating table.

The United States and Russia are scheduled to meet in Geneva on January 10, and the NATO-Russia Council will meet shortly thereafter on January 12. This diplomatic sequence could be the first step towards a de-escalation of the tensions generated by the recent military strengthening of Russia on the borders of Ukraine. Russia has made demands that are widely seen as failures for the United States and NATO. And she made these demands public, which raises the question of Moscow’s intentions: are these demands really serious or are they just a pretext to accuse Washington and NATO of the failure of the talks? Or, in other words: is Russia really willing to come to a compromise or is it just trying to push its advantage as far as it can (and admitting the possibility that the talks will fail if it doesn’t get 100% satisfaction)?

A broader look at Russia’s approach to its neighbors may reveal something about how it is handling – and making the most of – the crises that have emerged in their territories. Over the past year, Russia has systematically used crises in its regional environment to advance its interests. By seeking tactical gains rather than crisis resolution, Russia confuses its rivals, real or perceived, and pushes them into a defensive posture – which in turn prevents them from developing a more ambitious strategy for the region. . During most of the Belarusian crisis, the United States and the European Union reacted to events, trying to deal with them as they unfolded and guessing what Moscow’s next steps will be. US and EU policymakers should be aware of this approach when discussing European security with Russia, as it makes compromises less likely, but not completely impossible.

The diagram shows that Russia is taking advantage of an existing crisis by using a whole range of potential forms of leverage: diplomacy, energy, media and military.

How has Russia strengthened its position? In the South Caucasus, after successfully negotiating a ceasefire between Armenia and Azerbaijan, it strengthened its military footprint by deploying peacekeepers. Russia is now in a position to decide the agenda for the talks, as well as the formats in which they should take place. In Georgia, the mediation attempt by the President of the European Council Charles Michel has lost momentum in the face of the deep polarization of the political landscape. The protracted political crisis does not directly benefit Russia, but it hinders reforms and therefore affects the influence and credibility of the EU in the country, which Moscow can only welcome.

In Central Asia, the seizure of power by the Taliban in Afghanistan made it possible to restore to Russia its role of ultimate guarantor of the security of the post-Soviet republics in the region. This enabled it to strengthen the capacities of its bases in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, and in September conducted military exercises in Tajikistan. Russia can now set the conditions for US military cooperation with these countries, unlike the role they may have played in NATO operations in Afghanistan in the 2000s. Russia has also started deploying troops to Kazakhstan , along with other members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, following the unrest in that country.

In Belarus, Russian support allowed Lukashenka to retain power. Not only has Moscow financially supported a regime on the brink of failure, but it has also seconded labor to compensate for massive strikes at state-owned enterprises and journalists, replacing staff who have resigned or made redundancies. But Moscow’s support was not unconditional, and Lukashenka is now increasingly dependent on Russia. He therefore had to sign 28 roadmaps for further integration between the two countries, which he had hitherto hesitated to do. He also acknowledged the annexation of Crimea by Russia, thus dooming any attempt to improve already strained relations with neighboring Ukraine. The effective integration of Belarus into the Russian Federation is not yet on the agenda, but Lukashenka may no longer be able to block it.

In Moldova, the Russian government has expressed its openness to cooperation with the reformist government which took office after the legislative elections in July 2021. But, in September, it fabricated a gas crisis to remind Chisinau of its vulnerability . If Russia has denied any political agenda, it has pushed Moldova to delay the reorganization of MoldovaGaz and therefore the implementation of the unbundling envisaged in the framework of EU-Moldova relations. This was a political concession that the Moldovan government had to accept before gas supplies resumed at a sustainable price.

Last but not least, in Ukraine, Moscow succeeded in blocking any meaningful discussion in the Normandy format and pushed for direct contact between the Ukrainian government and the de facto authorities in Donetsk and Luhansk, as is clearly expressed in correspondence with its French and German counterparts. issued by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (a possibly unprecedented move). By increasing military pressure on Ukraine’s borders, first in the spring of 2021 and again in the last two months, Russia has diverted attention from the discussions that were to take place under the Normandy format on the settlement. of the conflict in the Donbass and turned it to a conversation with the United States on European security.

Whether it will push further and initiate direct military intervention in Ukraine beyond the Donbass remains an open question. The answer will be how the Russian authorities view and use crises. What the past few months have shown is a model in which Russia takes advantage of an existing crisis to advance its interests using the full range of potential forms of leverage: diplomacy, energy, media and other channels of influence. ; and, of course, military influence. Over the past year, Russia has not primarily tried to resolve crises in its neighborhood; he used them to strengthen his own positions.

For future talks with the United States and NATO, this pattern makes it unlikely that Russia will agree to a compromise that does not strengthen its positions in Ukraine and elsewhere in Eastern Europe (unless it considers the absence of a compromise as a greater threat to its interests in the region). The United States and NATO should therefore seek the right balance between deterrence and de-escalation to convince Russia that a more cooperative approach to security is in its own interests, including transparency and confidence-building measures, as well as arms control commitments. They should also specify that any attempt at destabilization would have a cost.

The EU, which for the moment will not participate in the talks, is still struggling to grasp Russia’s logic, because it differs fundamentally from its own approach to crises: the EU and its member states always favor compromise, in order to solve a crisis, because they see stability as an interest in itself. Because the EU is unlikely to change this approach, it should at least clearly define its strategic interests in its neighborhood and work on anticipating and preventing crises, i.e. identifying more precisely its own vulnerabilities and those of its neighbors, and use the instruments it must strengthen its own resilience and resilience of its eastern partners. Other than that, the EU will continue to witness Russian tactical gains in every crisis in its neighborhood, while continuing to mistakenly assume the existence of a grand strategic design behind Moscow’s movements.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications represent the opinions of its individual authors only.

About William Ferguson

Check Also

Why the Turkish-Greek island dispute erupts again and again | European | News and current affairs from across the continent | DW

Saber noises in the Mediterranean can seem confusing. After all, Turkey and Greece are members …